Leadership Spotlight

Where is Your Bottom Line? A Communication Tip for Leaders

Stock image of a woman reading a report.

After opening e-mails, do you find yourself scanning them for the main message without reading them in their entirety? When handed reports, proposals, letters, or memos, do you flip to the end, looking for the summary? Do you get exasperated while trying to figure out the writer’s bottom line? Effective communicators know the importance of putting their main message at the beginning of most written documents. This also applies in many of our conversations.

As a racing fan, I watch sports channels and follow social media sites to keep up with current events. A news story recently broke about two of my favorite drivers, and a friend called to ask if I had heard about it. I told her I had not. She began reciting the entire narrative from the beginning as I continued to wait for the big news. Instead of starting with the breaking story, she led up to it by telling me much of the background information. I interrupted and asked, “What’s the big story? What’s the bottom line?”

Then, it hit me. I have done the same in my own conversations. I start with background information and lead listeners through my thought process, making them wait for the bottom line. Many people begin telling a story and, after a seemingly endless amount of history, they finally say, “So, the bottom line is....” In such situations, many listeners find their mind wandering and lose interest.

Leaders must communicate effectively, including when to deliver their bottom line first. Employees do not always want or need to know background information before they hear about specific assignments, programs, or policy changes. They often want leaders to get to the point. Stating the bottom line first, then following with supporting facts or thoughts in the decision-making process, may determine if employees tune out or appreciate the straightforwardness of their leader.

As a writing instructor for law enforcement professionals, I recommend they put their bottom line up front (BLUF) in almost everything they write. Certainly, this is not always best, depending on the topic and audience. Quickly getting to the point may seem rude in some cultures; therefore, analyzing readers’ needs proves critical.

The BLUF technique often captures the audience’s attention, particularly if the topic applies to them. In business writing, a bottom line consists of one sentence, unless the document is long. Such cases may require two or three bottom lines. Determining your bottom line before you begin writing helps you focus your thoughts and decide what information your readers need. Putting your bottom line at the beginning of a document or e-mail eliminates the need for readers to scan through it looking for your main message.

Consider the types of documents and e-mails you write. Where did you put your bottom line? Did you put your readers’ needs first, rather than your own? Get to the point by stating the new policy, then explain its necessity. Leaders who enjoy building suspense and creating a lengthy description before revealing their bottom line may exasperate employees. Know your audience and your topic to decide whether you should state your bottom line at the beginning. When in doubt, put yourself in your readers’ position and answer this question: “Where would I want the bottom line if I received this?” Think about their perception. Rather than leading up to your purpose, consider putting it first for clear communication.

Dr. Cynthia L. Lewis, an instructor in the Executive Programs Instructional Unit, FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. She can be reached at Cynthia.lewis@ic.fbi.gov.